MADISON — Gov. Scott Walker reluctantly issued an executive order Thursday scheduling special elections to fill two vacant legislative seats, including the one representing the 42nd Assembly District that includes Columbia County.
Senate Republicans abandoned their efforts to block the contests amid Democratic criticism that the GOP is afraid of losing more seats.
The seats have been vacant since December, when Walker appointed the Republican incumbents to his administration. Rep. Keith Ripp, R-Lodi, resigned his 42nd District seat in late December to take the No. 3 position at the agriculture department as assistant deputy secretary.
State law requires Walker to call special elections to fill legislative vacancies that occur prior to May in regular election years such as this one but he had refused to do so, calling the special elections a waste of taxpayer money with the seats coming up for election in the fall.
Democrats have argued that Walker wants to avoid losing the seats to their party in a year that appears to favor Democrats. A group led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sued to force the special elections. The group won an order from a Madison judge last week forcing Walker to call the elections by noon Thursday.
The decision Thursday was quickly followed by one announced candidacy for the 42nd Assembly District.
“My wife and I have been talking about it for three or four months,” said Jon Plumer, a Lodi Town Board member who declared his intentions to run with a press release Thursday afternoon.
Plumer is running as a Republican. He said he is uncertain if he was the only Republican that would vie for the seat but wasted no time getting in the race. He said he had not filed paperwork yet, but was ready to start knocking on doors and shaking hands from now through June.
“We need to continue to look for ways to fund our schools and our highways. You only have to drive down the road to see that our infrastructure needs some work,” Plumer said. “Everything happened pretty quickly, but we’re up for the challenge.”
Democrat George Ferriter, who ran unsuccessfully vs. Ripp in the 2016 election, could pursue the seat again. Dodge County Democratic Party Chairman Jim Zahn said he contacted Ferriter not long after Ripp resigned his seat, assuming that a special election would be called.
“There was no decision made at that time,” Zahn said. “We will be in contact with him along with Columbia County and the other counties involved.”
A call to Ferriter for comment was not returned on Thursday.
Ferriter, a member of the Village of Doylestown Board of Trustees, would benefit from name recognition, according to Zahn, although the district skews Republican. In the 2016 election, Ripp beat Ferriter 66.6 percent to 33.3 percent in Dodge County, while in Columbia County Ripp won 55 percent to 44.9 percent.
Walker initially refused to accept the court order requiring the special election, but lost an appeal Wednesday.
State attorneys had contemplated asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is controlled by conservative justices, to step in but ultimately decided not to make the request. The governor issued the scheduling order as mandated, setting primaries for both open seats on May 15 with the general special election to follow on June 12.
His office announced the order in a news release with no additional comments. But the governor took Holder to task in a series of tweets, accusing him of forcing Wisconsin to spend tax dollars on duplicative elections. The governor charged that Holder and other liberals from Washington, D.C., are using the situation to raise money for the November elections.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald introduced a bill this week that would prohibit special elections after the spring election in a regular election year. Without the special elections, the seats would effectively remain empty until January, when winners in the regular November election would be sworn in.
But Fitzgerald told WTMJ-AM minutes after Walker scheduled the elections that he was dropping efforts to move the bill forward in the wake of the judge’s order.
“The governor was boxed in,” Fitzgerald said. “He couldn’t go beyond noon today or the threat of contempt was hanging out there. We don’t know what it would look like, but it’s certainly not a good place to be.”
Republicans have lost more than 30 legislative seats nationwide since President Donald Trump took office. One of them was in Wisconsin, where Democrat Patty Schachtner won an open state Senate seat in a traditionally Republican district in January. Walker branded her win a wakeup call for the GOP. Earlier this month, Democrat Conor Lamb captured what been a reliably Republican congressional seat in Pennsylvania.
The other legislative vacancy is in the 1st Senate District that covers the Door County peninsula northeast of Green Bay previously held by Frank Lasee of De Pere. State Rep. Andre Jacque of De Pere and Green Bay factory manager Alex Renard have announced intentions to run as Republicans, while Door County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Caleb Frostman is running as a Democrat.
Portage Daily Register Jonathan Stefonek contributed to this story.